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The dilemma of getting back to business in Utah tourist towns

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Autem Hirschfeld delivers pizza to customers waiting in their truck outside of Zax in Moab on Saturday, April 18, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

MOAB — As communities try to reopen businesses in the next few weeks, no one has a tougher job than those health directors who oversee rural counties with economies tied to tourism.

While many rural communities have so far escaped with few, if any, incidents of COVID-19, the glaring exception is rural counties with economic reliance on tourism. Of the 10 rural U.S. counties with the most cases per capita, seven of those are communities in which the economy relies heavily on tourism, according to an analysis by Daily Yonder.

Their analysis excluded Native American cases on reservations like the Navajo Nation, which has been one of the hardest hit areas of the country — rural or urban.

But among those top 10 rural counties is Summit County, where the first three coronavirus cases were visitors. Park City was also Utah’s first case of community spread, where a resident tested positive for COVID-19 with no known exposure on March 13, leading to the closure of restaurants and bars in Park City and eventually the closure of all ski resorts.

The Daily Yonder analysis found that infection rates in rural counties “with strong recreation economies was more than three times higher than other rural counties.”

Now that the governor is giving businesses the green light to open their doors, with precautions, how do those rural counties dependent on tourism plan to balance the need for visitors with the risks that travelers bring?

“We’ve gathered together groups — local government, chamber of commerce, hospital administrators, travel council — all of these entities that are affected, not only from disease care standpoint, but who are affected economically,” said Brady Bradford, health director of the Southeast District, which governs Carbon, Emery and Grand counties. “We’re working on a plan that will allow modifications and a gradual reintroduction of visitors.”

Carbon and Emery counties are reopening sooner and with fewer restrictions than Grand, a county of about 15,000 residents that attracts more than 1.5 million each year. While state parks and some businesses open in Carbon and Emery, Moab’s parks remain off-limits to out-of-county visitors until Friday.

Officials released a detailed plan that will ask businesses offering lodging to keep some percentage of their rooms vacant and space rentals at least 72 hours apart.

“We’re trying to figure out what gradual means,” Bradford said. “We have some good ideas on that, but it will be slightly different for different areas. In the end, we also want to kind of fall back on this idea that everyone is going to have to take some responsibility for themselves and their businesses. ... We expect people to adhere to what we’ve learned.”

San Juan County, which borders Grand, opened as soon as the governor said state parks could reopen to visitors from outside their counties on April 17. Tourists can camp in Blanding, Monticello and Bluff, but they’re still not allowed in Moab.

“We’re trying to balance keeping our economy functioning while preventing excess deaths,” said Kirk Benge, health director for San Juan County.

“My view is pretty straightforward. My job is to protect the health of the community, in the case of this pandemic it’s protecting our health care infrastructure. As long as tourism isn’t a threat to overwhelming our hospitals, it is not something I want to try and regulate,” Benge said.

“We’re open. But we ask everyone to comply with their local jurisdiction. So if you live in a place that has a stay-at-home order, then stay home. We have limits on group gatherings, but we don’t anticipate right now that there are so many recreators that it’s a threat.”

Summit County created 31 different work groups and asked them to submit written proposals by the first of this week. With plans to reopen some businesses by Friday, they hope a “ground up” approach will allow them to deal proactively with the challenges business owners see.

“It’s definitely a concern as much as a challenge,” said Philip Bondurant, Summit County’s deputy health director. “We knew we had to be innovative and creative in how best to do this.”

Summit County dealt with the worst per capita numbers in the state, but it mitigated what looked to be a massive outbreak so successfully, it was held up as a model for dealing with hot spots. Officials there closed all restaurants, except for takeout, about three days after that first case of community spread, and then soon after that, they issued a mandatory stay-at-home order, which officials saw as critical to allow them to mitigate the spread in the county of nearly 30,000 residents.

“It’s a testament to our community,” Bondurant said. “If you look at where Summit County was at the beginning of March and where we are now, it’s impressive. ... We know there is nothing we can take lightly.”

The business owners, he said, “are the driving force behind creating what will be our new normal.”

David Blodgett, director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, oversees Garfield and Washington counties, which include international tourist attractions like Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as well as extremely popular state parks like Sand Hollow, Quail Creek and Gunlock.

That district has some very different communities to consider, and it recently announced it would be reopening businesses on Friday. While national parks remain closed, the state parks were inundated with visitors, forcing three of them to close midday Saturday.

If national parks reopen, it could mean some of the smallest towns, like Springdale, which is located at the entrance of Zion and home to slightly more than 600 people, could be dealing with millions of visitors. Zion attracts about 4.3 million people each year.

Still, like the other health directors, Blodgett said it’s time — and safe — to reopen most businesses with recommended precautions like adhering to social distancing and wearing masks in public, indoor spaces.

“We’ve accumulated data,” he said Monday. “We’ve watched the trends, and it’s time to redirect our efforts as we continue to protect people but also continue to protect the financial element of this community.”

Washington and San Juan counties have had deaths, although San Juan’s deaths are due to a mother and son who live on the Navajo Reservation inside Utah and sought treatment in Arizona.

Death is only one reason to try and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Most health directors said many of the precautions are to make sure hospitals were not overwhelmed with extremely sick, very contagious patients.

Benge said San Juan County has less than 20 hospital beds for a county of 17,000 people.

“In the summer months, we sometimes double that population on the weekend,” he said. “That’s a risk that represents a real threat, in my opinion. That’s the piece that we’re monitoring.”

And as Bradford points out, dealing with COVID-19 is only one of the issues they have to consider.

“From the public health standpoint, there are elements of the economy that play into that,” Bradford said. “From suicide awareness to programs around opioid addiction, we deal with all of those kinds of programs and public health issues. And in times of economic despair, those things are also concerns.”

Correction: An earlier version misidentified the Daily Yonder as the Daily Yoder.